Waving to the Horizons

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Last week I wrote about using point removal in Commander, and how Commander doesn’t abide by the rules of regular Magic if you will (that is, card advantage is not king). This week I’ll do the opposite: how do the ways that we have to play Commander relate back to what we like about Magic in general? I can’t really give you objective answers to questions like this one. But I can give you an account of my own experiences and thoughts, so here goes nothing.

I’m a control player. It’s not just that I like longer games (I do), or that I enjoy the security that comes with knowing that you cannot lose (with countermagic, top decks are a lot scarier). It’s more that I enjoy gaining incremental advantages as time goes on due to making a series of correct decisions. I enjoy the feeling that each game is a complex puzzle which I have to solve in order to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

My favorite games are those in which I quickly drop to a single life before making the right plays over and over again to inch my opponent out of the game until I’m in complete control. Coming from my Spike side, I believe that this is where the skill comes in; of course every deck takes skill to pilot, but many are more forgiving. With a slow grinding deck playing the whole game at one life, you can’t ever mess up or you lose. I enjoy the challenge, and I enjoy the focus that comes with it. In a game with such a small margin, I can really engage myself completely with the problems at hand and get more engrossed in the game than I could otherwise.

I’ve often expressed this tendency in my tournament decks. When I started playing Standard around the release of Time Spiral, I quickly fell in love with UB [card Mystical Teachings]Teachings[/card] (then known as [card Dralnu, Lich Lord]Dralnu[/card] du Louvre). Chaining Mystical Teachings together to generate card advantage before eventually dropping [card Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir]Teferi[/card] to lock the other player out was my kind of game, and I didn’t stop there. The popular version of the deck wasn’t grinding enough for me, and so after Lorwyn came out, I ran Grim Harvest as a [card Mystical Teachings]Teachings[/card] target to use with Shriekmaw, Form of the Mulldrifter, and even Triskelavus. I didn’t just two-for-one a few times; I could do so indefinitely, and never again would I run out of [card Mystical Teachings]Teachings[/card] and [card Think Twice]Second Thoughts[/card]!

Needless to say, I really like to grind.

So when I first heard about Commander and decided to build a deck, it was only natural that I would take the same approach. In fact, in honor of how much I loved that Standard deck, I picked [card Dralnu, Lich Lord]Dralnu[/card] as my general. Now was my chance to build the ultimate control deck! I get forty life to make the format slow and get to play all of the best blue and black control cards in Magic’s storied history? Sign me up! What’s more, I always have [card Dralnu, Lich Lord]Dralnu[/card] on hand for card advantage.

What could go wrong?

It was in playing with this deck that it occurred to me that other people didn’t really seem to enjoy it when I cast Time Stretch and flashed it back; nor did they seem to like it when they knew I had Forbid (with plenty of cards in hand) as well as [card Dralnu, Lich Lord]Dralnu[/card] untapped to flashback the Hinder in my ‘yard. In a tournament setting nobody complained; they were there to win. But as soon as the objective changed to having fun, my playgroup felt free to let me know just how unhappy they were with [card Dralnu, Lich Lord]Dralnu[/card]. So I set the deck aside, deciding to use it only against cutthroat players who ‘deserved’ to have their fun wrecked (a topic for a later article). To replace it, I decided to build a deck that would satiate my appetite for attrition without annoying everybody so much.

Here, I realized the same thing that Mark Rosewater observed in a recent article of his: though it’s illogical, people are more upset, at a more visceral level, when their Craw Wurm gets Essence Scattered than when it gets Doom Bladed. This stems from the fact that people like to be able to accomplish their in game goals, and while ‘attack with Craw Wurm’ is a goal that both spells interrupt, only Essence Scatter gets in the way of your opponent’s goal of ‘casting Craw Wurm’ (part of why land destruction is so unpopular). With this in mind, I resolved to make an attrition based deck with no Counterspells and no Time Walks. This meant, or rather I thought it meant, abandoning my favorite color so I built Shirei, Shizo's Caretaker.

This deck utilizes its Commander with [card Bottle Gnomes]self[/card]-[card Mindless Automaton]sacrificing[/card] [card Thoughtpicker Witch]one-or-less creatures[/card] to slowly grind out advantages and eventually take over the game. The deck certainly wasn’t as oppressive as [card Dralnu, Lich Lord]Dralnu[/card] in the middle of the game, but by late game people were getting fed up with it. Once again, they couldn’t do anything. Even without actually stopping them from casting spells, exhausting everyone’s resources left them with no way to break back in.

This is the antithesis of fun: feeling powerless. People play Commander so that they can enact their favorite game plans, and if I wanted the table to have fun I had to abandon the decks that I loved: the decks that hinder anyone else’s ability to execute a game plan. But I didn’t take [card Shirei Shizos Caretaker]Shirei[/card] apart, it was the epitome of the one thing I loved, even if other don’t like playing against it. However, in playing it I found the spark for a new way to enjoy Magic: Cabal Coffers.

While in tournaments I’d always been a Johnny-Spike, I started my Magic life as a Timmy. The first deck I built myself was a mono green monstrosity filled with nothing but Llanowar Elves and Krosan Cloudscrapers. In the ludicrous amounts of mana I generated with [card Cabal Coffers]Coffers[/card], I rekindled that spark of my inner Timmy. While in tournaments I had always despised doing so because it was too luck based and required no decision making, it was through Commander I discovered that I love to ramp.

A Rant About Why Ramp is so Great

Splashy spells are fun. Even if you aren’t a Timmy, there’s something deeply rewarding about experiencing something that’s much bigger than what you were expecting. Novelty makes things memorable, and the most memorable moments of games are the ones that will be the most rewarding in the long run. Grinding back into a close game is a lot of fun for me during the game, but [card Genesis Wave]Genesis Waving[/card] for 72 is also fun in the moment, and creates a more lasting impression.

Ramp is what makes these plays possible; they wouldn’t be memorable if they happened all of the time, and the biggest constraint on what happens in a game of Magic is mana. Moreover, ramp doubles as a method of alleviating your deck’s propensity for mana screw. Not only does it create more fun moments, but does away with some of the unfun ones. This may not be true for everyone, but I end up feeling worse when I’m short on mana than when I’m flooded, making drawing ramp spells rather than ones that ‘do something’ a net positive in my eyes. Ramp will make the average game more fun, and will facilitate the greatest games you’ve ever played.

What’s not to love?

Back to the Story

I fell in love with ramping into splashy spells by trying to play to the group’s interests (not being disrupted) and looking for something I could enjoy within that sphere. Part of what makes Magic so great is that so many people can enjoy the different aspects of it, and I think that the degree to which the game is entertaining depends upon how much of it you enjoy. Commander is great for learning to appreciate new aspects of Magic. Many facets are legitimate options due to the format’s casual nature, and your playgroup may push you out of your comfort zone.

I hope this piece has given you a bit of insight into what there is to love about Magic in general (and about Commander in particular), but more importantly I hope that it has inspired you to broaden your own horizons. Magic is an incredible game, and no matter how long you’ve been playing I’m confident that you have more joy to discover in it. Let me know what you think in the comments, over email, or in a Tweet.

Jules Robins
@JulesRobins on twitter
toahaomin on mtgo

2 thoughts on “Waving to the Horizons

  1. Ramp is arguably one of the biggest issues of Commander, IMHO. That is, because of such opposition when it comes to land destruction or denial, there is no checking system that keeps ramp under control. While I agree playing big spells is fun (I love me some Storm Herd), some games become lopsided since one player got their ramp and the other player didn't, making things unfun.

  2. Mick, you make an excellent point, ramp is a powerful strategy without an answer (that isn’t frowned upon), and particularly in 1v1 can cause lopsided games. My experience however has been that people run enough answers to keep games running long which tends to balance out the mana by late game. Nonetheless, there are certainly occasioonally games where somebody draws enough early to dominate, and I agree that these are often unfun. Thanks for commenting and furthering the discussion!

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